What do we want to see when we go to a museum? Sometimes we’re looking for the strange and new, something that makes us think or feel differently about the world around us. Sometimes we want to see the familiar, something we’ve read or learned about but never had the chance to see in the flesh. And sometimes we want something in the middle; something we’ve never set eyes on, but which reminds us of what we know. Sometimes we want to see a different side to something we already understand.
That’s how I feel when I visit museums set in the space people once lived in. In these adapted home museums, you stand in the middle of preserved living quarters from another time. Finding yourself in Marie Antoinette’s chambers at Versailles or Joséphine Bonaparte’s dressing room at Malmaison is an alien experience; these women lived among unimaginable riches, and seeing their gilt clocks, bejewelled furnishings and velvet-tasselled canopy beds shows us how very different their lives were to our own.
Yet there is also something intimate and familiar about standing in the very room in which these women napped, snored and put on their makeup. Imagining them rolling out of bed and splashing water on their faces from the porcelain pitchers displayed right in front of us allows us to see these abstract, often famous figures as real humans, who inhabited real bodies in the real world.
This intimacy is one of the main reasons I love the Cognacq-Jay museum of 18th-century art in Paris. The museum is located in the elaborate Hôtel Donon, home to Théodore-Ernest Cognacq (1839–1928) and his wife Marie-Louise Jay (1838–1925), with views of the surrounding Marais streets. It is filled with rare 18th-century artworks and objects collected by the Cognacq-Jays throughout their lifetimes.
But what I love most about this museum is how it still manages to feel a bit like the home it once was. Right down to the plush, stubby silk bed in which they did their napping and snoring. Just as we all do.